Along with the rest of the internet, about a month ago, I read Sam Polk’s NYT Op-Ed piece, For the Love of Money. If you have not read it, I strongly urge you to do so before you read any further here. Since Mr. Polk published that piece, it has gone to the front page of Hacker News, and been applauded around the web as a candid, honest, and revealing set of insights into the heart of a reformed Wall Street mammonite. I think it is good that he wrote the article, and I think it is good that it ends with an altar call for others to engage in more philanthropy and less hoarding. In no way do I want to cast aspersion on what I believe are Mr. Polk’s good intentions and sincere motivations. I do, however, want to dig deeper into the problems of wealth inequality, greed, and the obstacles that prevent a balanced world.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Empathy lately, and deeply considering whether its a quality I exhibit to others. I find that I am, to my great loathing, quite poor in this regard. I hope I can lend my perspective on why this is the case for so many, and why selfishness, at the highest levels of wealth, or in poverty, is such a hard habit to break. It all comes down to economics and scale. Mark Cuban wrote about how when he was young, he would drive by the houses of the wealthy, and yearn for the day when he could live like them. I know that feel, all too well. I was an Apple Authorized Consultant for two years, doing a lot of work in private homes. I worked with the families of some of the wealthiest people in Atlanta, and regularly stood in the kitchens of millionaires. To say I was not jealous would be a lie. I constantly wondered how these people could rationalize buying their Mercedes’ and their Rolex watches while I puttered around in my beatup old Honda, barely making ends meet. During those two years, I made a little under 30k/year and either had roommates or lived at home rent free (I moved in with my dad for 9 months). The scale of waste that I perceived seemed pointless and sad, when so many people I knew needed the money. When I needed the money. I was confused at the world’s ideas of fairness when I would be greeted by a stay-at-home wife, dripping in jewelry, clearly bored out of her mind, and I had to solve all her technology problems. It made my doubt the value of my brain. I felt I had to be smarter than these people, so why was I working for them and not the other way around? I was angry.
Fast forward to today, and the needle still hasn’t moved much. I make a bit more money, I live on my own, I have a better car, and things are looking up, but last year I lost a job, suffered a lot of personal heartache, and had some very rough times. It seems like every time I try to get ahead, something comes along and sweeps the rug out from under me. But is that really true? Is life really that unfair to poor little me?
With age comes perspective, and I am young, so I cannot claim to be wise, but I learn more about myself every day. I have a newfound resolve in frugality because I began seeing my grocery store decisions in their context. I realized that when I casually tossed a loaf of bread in my shopping cart, that simple choice was as related to the scope and scale of my life as buying a Ferrari is to a billionaire. Just as to me, that choice seems absurd and unfair, so too, my access to food and shelter is a mere fantasy to roughly 1/3 of the world’s population. How can I judge the wealthy for making their choices of luxury while I decide to treat myself to a nice bit of cheese and wine while millions starve to death in Africa. Scott Alexander follows this thinking to an extreme in his essay on measuring financial decisions in terms of dead children.
It’s about scale.
And the solution to this works at a funny scale as well. At my comfortable but modest income, I can pat myself on the back for giving $25 to Kiva here and there, while Polk is working on starting a fund to raise millions of dollars for those in need. Good on him, and good on me I guess, but what are we really accomplishing? I hope we can do more than mollifying our consciences. In his article, “Efficient Charity”, Lesswrong.com contributor Yvain makes a great point that I want to elaborate on. His words below:
If a high-powered lawyer who makes $1,000 an hour chooses to take an hour off to help clean up litter on the beach, he’s wasted the opportunity to work overtime that day, make $1,000, donate to a charity that will hire a hundred poor people for $10/hour to clean up litter, and end up with a hundred times more litter removed. If he went to the beach because he wanted the sunlight and the fresh air and the warm feeling of personally contributing to something, that’s fine. If he actually wanted to help people by beautifying the beach, he’s chosen an objectively wrong way to go about it. And if he wanted to help people, period, he’s chosen a very wrong way to go about it, since that $1,000 could save two people from malaria. Unless the litter he removed is really worth more than two people’s lives to him, he’s erring even according to his own value system.
This, to me, is the crux. We all want to do something for a world we see in pain, but we don’t want to leave our comfortable lives or have to look misery and poverty directly in the face. That’s what documentaries are for, after all. I’ll make this personal. I recently donated a box of old clothes to Goodwill (an organization with debatable intentions, but you get the point). I was more than happy to give things I didn’t need to help someone anonymously, but a couple weeks ago, when Atlanta got down to 5 degrees at night, I didn’t go and actually clothe the homeless. I didn’t want to have to actually help anyone. I know where the homeless are in my city. I know that some people almost certainly suffered or died that night in the bitter temperatures. But I stayed in and cranked up the heat.
Sam Polk has issued a challenge asking for others in the financial industry to set aside a portion of their bonus earnings (bonuses? what are those?) to be given away to those in need. A noble cause, certainly, but one that doesn’t require anything more than the stroke of a pen from donors with plenty to spare. Giving is easy, sterile, and even tax-deductible. Being someone who helps the world is messy, long, difficult, and full of sadness.
If you have ideas on how we can all work together more closely and would like to reach out to Mr. Polk, I’m sure he would be happy to hear from you with other suggestions I may not have thought of here. I would also appreciate your ideas, but if you want to move the needle, he’s probably a better person to talk to. He’s got the money.